Published: November 30, 2004
A complete revamped Chinese sculpture gallery has opened at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The gallery tells the story of a pivotal juncture in the history of the ancient civilization that continues unbroken to this day.
“The Glory of the Law: Treasures of Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture” is a reinstallation of the museum’s world-famous collection of works from the Fifth through Tenth centuries, when the religion from India gained widespread acceptance in China. This creative rethink for visitors’ encounter with the masterpieces at the Nelson-Atkins marks the first update in this collection’s presentation since the museum’s famed Chinese sculpture gallery opened in 1941.
More than 60 works from the Nelson-Atkins’ nonesuch Chinese sculpture collection are reinstalled and reinterpreted in “The Glory of the Law” to show viewers how Chinese art responded to the evolving needs of a complex religion of foreign origin.
Ancient works in the gallery come from a period in imperial Chinese history spanning broadly the segmented Northern Wei dynasty (386 to 534) to the disintegration of the brilliant Tang dynasty (618 to 906). This was a period of fluorescence for Buddhism in China that dramatically transformed the state.
Evidence of Buddhism’s popularity in China by the Fifth Century can be found in a number of famous Buddhist cave temples carved into the side of remote cliffs. Following the precedents of Central Asia and India, holy men would paint and carve iconographic images to serve as metaphysical analogues. Starting with Buddhas, these works depicted the entire Buddhist pantheon, down the line of Bodhisattvas, saints, monks, nuns and donors, culminating with a menagerie of animals and birds.
These multiple cave temples or grottoes that trailed down steep cliffs in China became repositories for works of art that are the surviving defining mark of their day. In many cases, these works represent the balance of what remains from a much greater production from the Fifth through Eighth centuries, when the caves were made.
A number of sculptures on view in “The Glory of the Law” were preserved from these caves. “In terms of quality, representing what has survived from this period, these are the best available outside of China,” said Marc Wilson, director/CEO of the Nelson-Atkins and curator in charge of the reinstallation.
Coarse sandstone carvings of a “Head of a Buddha” from circa 490 and a “Head of a Bodhisattva” from the second half of the Fifth Century originated in the cave grottoes at Yungang, outside the Wei capital known today as Datong, Shanxi Province. Executed with state funding under the supervision of the Buddhist monk Tan Yao, this series of cave temples stretches for more than half a mile along craggy mountain cliffs.
Later cave temples begun when the Northern Wei dynasty in 494 moved its imperial capital from Datong to Luoyang in Henan Province are the source for three works on view. Ranked among the top three ancient sculptural sites in present-day China and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, the Longmen Caves are a series of chapels carved into high limestone cliffs along the banks of the Yellow River south of the ancient city of Luoyang, the center of Han culture.
Work on the Longmen Caves continued sporadically through the Tang dynasty. A masterful “Guardian Lion” from this culminating period is among the first works to confront visitors passing between Sixth Century “Temple Guardians” at the entrance to the exhibition. Probably carved in 681, the fearsome limestone lion with gaping jaw and swiping paw was installed originally in the Zhi-yun Cave at Longmen.
On view at the opposite end of the gallery, an anchor of the Nelson-Atkins; comprehensive collection of Chinese sculpture also derives from Longmen, in the Binyang Caves. Dating to about 522, “Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court” is a monumental relief depicting the worship of the Buddha by Empress Wenzhao, the mother of Emperor Xuanwu of the Northern Wei who ordered the cave’s construction. The companion relief of Empress Wenzhao’s consort, Emperor Xiaowen, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The survival of Kansas City’s half of the pair is due in large part to Laurence Sickman, the first curator of Oriental art and the second director of the Nelson-Atkins. Both friezes of fine, dark gray limestone were plundered between 1931 and 1934, and the fragments were scattered throughout China and as far afield as Germany. Sickman and the director of the Fogg Art Museum at Sickman’s alma mater, Harvard, recovered hundreds of pieces of soft limestone from the work. After two years of reconstruction, the Empress panel was unveiled with the opening of the new Chinese sculpture gallery at the Nelson-Atkins in 1941.
That first installation was among the first two galleries for Chinese art opened 63 years ago as part of a general expansion into the west wing of the Nelson-Atkins. Reflecting the cavernous origins of many of the works on view, the gallery until now afforded a murky, tomblike setting under a high, arched ceiling.
“The presentation had no particular order to it,” Wilson said. “It was very dark. There was no light. People couldn’t see. The contents were mixed with non-Buddhist art that happened to be in stone. Now all the early Buddhist sculpture we want to share with the community is displayed in one room.”
“The Glory of the Law” traces stylistic directions in sculpture for a period of several hundred years when Buddhism began to transform Chinese society. Early figural images are linear in style, presented frontally in high and low relief, and tend to be clothed in typically Chinese garments. This archaic style from the Fourth Century to the third quarter of the Sixth displays Chinese aesthetic preferences for flatness, repeating pattern, abstract geometry and strict hierarchy.
Gradually, Chinese Buddhist sculpture evolves toward greater naturalism, plastic volume, asymmetry and emotional expression. Building toward an apogee at the height of the Tang dynasty in the Seventh and Eighth centuries, images exhibit a more exotic style, with figures depicted in foreign garb that leaves Bodhisattvas scantily clad in the manner of Indian prices and adorned with rich ornamental accessories.
In addition to important figural sculptures, highlights of “The Glory of the Law” include two upright-stone Buddhist steles. Stelae of this kind were set up in Buddhist temples – frequently in the courtyard – as an expression of faith by one or more subscribing donors. Among US art museums, “these are the most important,” Wilson said of the Nelson-Atkins examples. “These are very rare, even in China. We’re extremely fortunate to have two.”
Admission to view the treasures in “The Glory of the Law” is free for all visitors. The reinstallation will remain on view indefinitely. For information, nelson-atkins.org or 816-751-1ART.
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